What I Wish I Knew Before Becoming An Activist

Photo: Courtesy of Xicanisma.
Throughout history, Americans have used activism as a tool to seek positive change in communities and in government. That's no different today.

With the help of social media, we've watched the Black Lives Matter movement grow from a hashtag to a powerful force in politics. We've seen #OscarsSoWhite shake the academy's regulations for membership. And we've watched women combat street harassment with hashtags like #YouOKSis.

These online movements can help marginalized communities push for visibility and social justice. One example of that power is Xicanisma, an influential social campaign — that shares its name with the Chicana feminist movement — and bears the tagline "Dismantling oppressive isms through privileged tears. Here to make you uncomfortable."

The Facebook page
for Xicanisma has more than 69,900 likes; the Instagram has more than 57,000 followers. The founder of the social media movement, Cassandra Alicia, doesn't use her last name on the accounts because of online harassment and trolls. But she doesn't let them stop her from her mission: connecting people of color and members of the LGBTQ community to dismantle oppression.
We spoke to Cassandra — over the phone and through email — about Xicanisma, the power of social media activism, and why being an activist is an ongoing process.
Xicanisma is typically described as "Chicana feminism." Can you talk a little about why you chose that as the name of your social media movement?
"I went from being a 'white feminist' for so many years, to kind of being around a lot of Black feminists and womanists. And so I learned quickly the difference between white feminism and Black feminism — and a lot of that opened my eyes to race and white privilege, and you know, all these different sections that made me realize I’m not white.

"But then I was still at this crossroads with, 'Okay, I’m not white, and even though I align more with Black feminism than white, I’m still not Black.' And so, it was kind of this — I didn’t know of any Latina feminists. Or at least, I hadn’t seen any online. And I didn’t have any Latina feminists in real life either.

"And so, I started identifying and reading about Chicana politics. I started identifying as Chicana. And then it just kind of clicked for me: like, being brown and being a woman and Chicana feminism. So, that’s kind of the creation of my page — of Xicanisma — [it] was for other brown women who didn’t know where to begin or where they fit in this whole conversation. Xicanisma was like Chicana and feminism put together. That was a word that just came to me.

"It wasn’t until a while after the creation of the page that I began reading Chicana scholars and realized that Xicanisma was already a movement. There had already been books and essays about it back in the '80s. So it was really cool to kind of be like, 'Oh this is already a thing — this already has momentum and history.' But when I first created it, it was just out of a necessity for visibility, I guess you could say."

Check your own privileges, toxic behaviors, and be open to critique. Know that it is okay to check out sometimes, both mentally and physically.

How would you describe contemporary Xicanisma?
"I feel that we are still fighting for a lot of the same things that older Chicana feminists fought for before us. Unfortunately, not a lot has changed since then. Brown women are still the lowest paid women in this country [according to the Pew Research Center], we're still fighting for reproductive rights, we're still underrepresented in media, we're still fighting for better access to health care and education. And we're still fighting capitalism, machismo, classism, racism, police brutality.

"However, the way in which we chose to resist and combat these things, and the way that we view them as a whole, is what separates the two. Older feminists kind of have these limited ideas of women having to do certain things in order to resist patriarchy and racism. The [way] in which they chose to do those things are fine on an individual level. But to put individual choices on all women, is a problem.

"A lot of older feminists tend to think that women, especially Black [women, or women of color], who are comfortable in, own, or use their sexuality in whichever way they see fit, are automatically just trying to appeal to the heterosexual male gaze, especially for profit, and not in their own right, which sometimes does mean for profit.

"There are also a lot femme-phobic ideas — the majority of time, women who present as femme are constantly being invalidated for it, and are seen as airheads, attention seekers, or weak. Then these ideas are usually topped with the idea that 'formal' education [is] the only key for women to be taken seriously in a male-dominated society.

"Like, none of these ideas are feminist to me. They are borderline, if not actually, misogynistic themselves. Feminism is about choice, it's about liberation. Not about abiding by another set of rules. What works for me might not work for other women, and as long those other women are not perpetuating or participating in oppressive power structures that harm other people, then I will support those choices."
Photo: Courtesy of Xicanisma.
You started Xicanisma online in 2014. Can you talk about the role of social media in movements, particularly for marginalized communities?
"I think social media plays a role in social movements, regardless of the people who say it doesn’t do anything. Because it really does.

"Like I said, from high school, when I learned about feminism, I was stuck in this white feminism thinking for so long. Until I got on Twitter. Until I interacted with so many amazing people. It was reading their thoughts and knowing that there were people out there that thought like me and were like me.

"That’s the most important thing for social media. Because when I first made Xicanisma, no one knew it was me. I didn’t really want it — it was like its own thing. People didn’t know it was me until like a year later. But all the people that were reading Xicanisma, they’re not even in my city, they’re not even in my state, and there’s so many people that don’t get to have these conversations in their life, and they don’t know where to turn—they feel isolated.

"My page and my feminism and activism are for all brown women, women who fall under the Latinx umbrella, regardless if they're of Mexican decent or not. I know a lot of people do not identify or have problems with Chicanx/Xicanx politics and identities, but for me, the reason that the Xicana identity is relevant to me is because it reflects the experience in the United States. Although I stand in solidarity with all Latinx women outside of the U.S., I can't speak on those issues because I was born in and live in the U.S., and that is what I speak on."

There are no qualifications that you need to meet in order to be an activist. You don't have to be a scholar or be a certain age to leave your mark on the world.

What would you say to people who think activism via social media isn't “real” activism?
"For me, well, being critical is — it’s ableist and classist, first of all. A lot of people are like, ‘Go offline. What are you doing offline?’ And a lot of people do stuff offline.

"But, of course, a lot of people can’t do stuff offline, like go to a protest. If you’re a working mom, if you’re a single mom, you can’t take time off work to go to a protest. Sometimes, it’s not accessible to people with disabilities. There’s a lot of reasons — like people may not feel safe in these spaces. You know, there’s a lot of reasons why people don’t go out and do things. And it’s not necessarily because they don’t want to. But they just don’t have the means to.

"Overall, people who say social media doesn’t do anything aren’t involved in social justice. I think everyone that is a part of the social justice movement does know that social media does play a big part in the way that we connect with each other, and the way that we organize, and the way that we share ideas and thoughts."
Can you talk a bit about how you're bringing Xicanisma offline to help people mobilize in their communities?
"I had been wanting to take Xicanisma offline into a real life space for a long time. I finally got to do that this summer in San Antonio. I really just wanted to hold an event where Xicanas/Latinas could meet and have fun, but also to start conversations about how to organize in our own cities, especially with a focus on how to create safe spaces that are inclusive to others' identities.

"There were so many things I wanted to discuss and do, but because it was all new to me —as far as organizing and putting an event together — I felt that it didn't go as well as I had hoped. Everything felt very limited. I hope that I am able to create more of these events, now that I know what works and what doesn't, in other cities and just kind of keep a momentum going.

"In the meantime, I've been working on how we can create and share these ideas, and organizing strategies and tips online for followers. I would love to connect with so many people outside of my city and state, but if that's just something that has to be on hold, then I'd definitely just love for Xicanisma to be a gateway for people to build communities and connect with each other on their own."

Being an ally is hard work. You have to actively check your privilege and use it. You have to listen and recognize that sometimes your presence, input, opinion, is not needed.

I think people often throw around the term "ally." Can you talk about whether allies are necessary to movements, and what the role of an ally is?
"The notion that oppressed people need allies is laughable. We [marginalized people] do not need allies. The revolution will go on with or without them. Our liberation is not about them. It's about dismantling the oppressive power structures that they actually benefit from, regardless if they're complicit or not.

"Every time marginalized communities accomplish something, allies think they did that and that we should be grateful. This is how they also always take credit for our work. Allies take up too much space. I just think the word 'ally' has been ruined. I don't even trust people who self-describe as allies now. I don't need you to tell me you're an ally. You saying you're an ally on your Twitter bio means nothing.

"Being an ally is hard work. You have to actively check your privilege and use it. You have to listen and recognize that sometimes your presence, input, opinion, is not needed. It's a constant thing, it's not just announcing that you support so-and-so. It's calling out your friends and family; it's listening to what oppressed people are telling you; it's reading and learning about our history and our identities on your own without us having to educate you."

Corrected! —I apologize for previous version that erased actual Black/African immigrants.

A photo posted by Brown Girl Revolution (@xicanisma_) on

What do you wish you'd known before becoming an activist?
"It’s a process. No one ever tells you that social justice, activism, feminism is a process. You’re always learning things. There are things that you don’t know. There are other marginalized groups out there that you’re not a part of.

"It’s exhausting and inspiring at the same time. When I look back at Xicanisma and at things I used to post — I do not agree with everything that I used to say — and that was just two years ago! We’re going to find new ways to identify. We’re going to find new ways to label things. It’s just a process. A lot of people feel like, 'I’m a feminist and I know what it means and that’s it. I’m going to be a feminist forever. And that's it.'

"But it’s a lot of work. And it’s exhausting. It’s overwhelming at times. And sometimes you’re going to fuck up. But that’s okay. It’s kind of like a learning process for everyone and it’s going to continue forever. And thinking of it that way is mentally exhausting. But it’s really rewarding at the same time."

No one ever tells you that social justice, activism, feminism is a process. You’re always learning things.

What advice do you have for young women who want to get involved in activism or a movement?
"There is no one way, or correct way, to be an activist. Everyone's activism looks different, and that doesn't mean that one is better than the other.

"We all have different approaches on how we combat, deal, and respond to oppressive structures. The notion that you need to abide by respectability politics or that you have to meet certain criteria — that's usually drenched in ableism, classism, ageism — is bullshit.

"There are no qualifications that you need to meet in order to be an activist. You don't have to be a scholar or be a certain age to leave your mark on the world. Just keep pushing and fighting for what you believe in, in whatever way that looks [like] for you. Acknowledge that you don't know everything, and actively seek out knowledge.

"Check your own privileges, toxic behaviors, and be open to critique. Know that it is okay to check out sometimes, both mentally and physically. Speaking out, writing, protesting, even just reading about injustice daily is mentally exhausting and oftentimes triggering.

"Taking time to yourself and practicing self-care is important. Our health is important. Lastly, be as vulnerable as you possibly can. Do not let the weight of this work make you emotionless and cold. Vulnerability is a strength, and it is empowering. It helps us stay true to ourselves. And what is more revolutionary than our truth?"
Editor's note: This interview has been edited and clarity.

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